Glastonbury: Myth and Englishness

Writing from the basement and my room in Connaught Hall, Bloomsbury

Site of King Arthur's Tomb

Site of King Arthur’s Tomb

This sign, standing among the remains of Glastonbury Abbey, reads:

Site of King Arthur’s Tomb. In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen were said to have been found on the south site of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to the black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.

Take a second to read over the inscription another time. Initially, the sign seems to be marking something of immense importance, of sheer greatness. But going back and reading it through a second time, the greatness starts to show a few cracks. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere “were said to have been found,” though there was no definitive proof it was their bodies (let alone they actually existed). And their supposed tombs were moved to this spot “until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539,” which means that the tomb isn’t there anymore. So, why the sign focused on the greatness?

Right after taking this photo, I turn behind me and look out onto the grass between other ruined parts of the abbey. Chairs have been set up, as well as a sound system and an altar, in preparation for what appears to be a mass service. My mind is filled with even more questions: Why hold a church service in the presence of the mythical tomb of Arthur and Guinevere? Yes, an abbey is a religious building, but there is no proof of their existence, so why practice a religious belief it’s safe to assume that people attending the mass full-heartedly believe in? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s passages about King Arthur were believed to be complete fact for years, but then came to be understood as myth. Is the fate of the religion being practiced in the abbey to face the same fate?

I hope it’s become evident that as I’ve been Mapping London, the idea of Englishness continues to be challenged by my experiences. Each blog entry defines and redefines what it means to be English, as seen from the eyes of a 20 year old American student. Glastonbury Abbey and it’s affiliation with the myth of King Arthur is fascinating. Seeing so many people still to this day visiting the tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere makes me wonder what is so important about this myth? Returning to Monmouth’s text, one encounters not only the myth but the importance of religion tied up with it. It’s hard to define what is truly part of the myth and what is truly part of religion, it’s all woven together. Values such as purity, chivalry, and the sacred are presented. If we jump to Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthur, we see the same set of values. Every chapter is marked in time by a Christian holiday; the knights must be pure (virgins) and honorable in order to fully complete quests; men sacrifice themselves. Looking around Glastonbury Abbey, it’s safe to say that people don’t believe in everything written in the Arthur myth, yet the importance of religion is still quite strong. The Arthurian myth seems to be prevalent in contemporary Englishness because the themes and values in the myth continue to be seen as important for one to be considered “English.” But an identity built on myth, how sound could it be? Perhaps as sound as the inscription on the sign seems; mighty at first, but with visible cracks.


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